Bahman Ghobadi’s recent feature “The Rhino Season” was screened in the UCLA celebration of Iranian cinema recently and I had the chance to watch the movie on a bigger screen although VOA network had screened it both on TV and it’s YouTube channel recently. I’m glad that I saw the movie in the theater hall of The Hammer museum down in Westwood, because for me the most captivating aspect of this film sums up in the great cinematography which is masterfully conducted by Tooraj Aslani, A visual talent and a superb and creative visionary that almost saves this film.
Ghobadi’s film conveys the story of a jailed Kurdish poet, plays by famous Iranian in exile actor Behruz Vosughi, in a post revolution Iran who starts looking for his wife, played oddly enough by Monicca Belucci, after being released from a prison sentence of thirty years.
After watching “Nobody knows about Persian cats” and “A time for the drunken horses” which were two of Ghobadi’s earlier movies I had high hopes for another straight, simple and low budget product featuring the same gorilla style approach typical of Ghobadi, but “The Rhino Season” is basically a new experience for its maker where both his technique of storytelling as well as his visual style has changed into a sophisticated and ambitious version, however I am not quite sure if I can still see the sincerity of his earlier films in here. The entire story is conveyed through a depressive dark approach. It is full of beautifully shot, surreal moments, hallucinations and flashbacks enriched with great compositions and visual elements, but thematically it fails to enfolds a whole lots of plot holes and is at times filled with pretentiousness and very often depicts over the top exaggerations of the atrocities of Iranian regime and its officials.
The protagonist and his wife become the subject of extreme oppression which is somewhat hard to believe for an Iranian audience today. The return of the man after thirty years to look for his wife gives us an engaging storyline to follow from Iran to Turkey, two countries which are hot topics in current state of the affairs but are surprisingly hidden from the eye of Hollywood. Ghobadi chooses to slow down the rhythm and turn his leading actor into a mute observer of the story perhaps to maintain a special theme which in my opinion results in his audience to lose patience because of all the vague situations and unanswered questions that are never addressed properly. The man finally finds his wife but refuses to confront her, instead he unknowingly makes love to the daughter of her wife. Later he plays backgammon with the son of his wife and exchange cold glances with him. We don’t know what is going on in his mind that makes him not to go knocking on her door or exposing himself at some point towards the end. He keeps remembering what he has gone through but this emotional fallout of the revolution is just too slow moving to be articulated.
Nevertheless, Behruz Vosughi’s acting is superb. He hadn’t been into a major film for decades but here he displays his master class acting skills despite the fact that he can’t do much of a talking and all he has is a pair of sad eyes which surprisingly convey the pain and sorrow of his years of being deprived from acting. Now that I mentioned the Iranian audience I allow myself the express my dismay on the negative impact of casting non-Iranian actors for the roles of The wife and the the bearded badman who had a hard time speaking Farsi without accent and that threw me off of the mood of the film every time they had a line. Their accent makes me wonder why he didn’t use any of the Iranian talents who could speak fluent Farsi and keep the rhythm fluid throughout the film. Also having the popular Iranian pop music star Arash casted as one of the supporting roles wasn’t a very smart choice just because his image, being a world known pop figure changes the entire feel of the scenes he was acting at from the melancholic and gloomy feeling that were maintained by the director.
As I mentioned earlier cinematography is the films greatest asset. Aslani’s visual interpretation of Ghobadi’s story is jaw dropping. His choice of light, shots, framing and color tones are simply amazing. A great color palette to design each setting and a corresponding low key lighting results into the continuation of the nightmare. The shot-list is made from a series of extreme long shots and extreme close-ups both conveying the similarities between the settings and the character. In my opinion if one takes out the work of the cinematography from this movie, there is going to be so little left to appreciate about the entire film. Ghobadi’s aim of portraying the Iranian officials in such a great evil is not very different from the way the makers of the movie “300” portrayed the Persians in that Hollywood production. I understand his frustration with Iranian government but it’s hard for me to identify with the world his characters are living in because unlike his previous films that were full of love and feelings, “ The Rhino Season” is full of hatred and soullessness.